Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000
1. Good morning, and welcome to our Committee.
Thank you very much indeed, both of you, for the excellent papers
which you put in. Before we start asking you questions, is there
anything you would like to add, however briefly, to the papers
which you have presented? Ms Ross-Robertson?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) No. I am just thinking
that there are some points which have arisen, but I think they
will probably come out in the discussion.
(Ms Hollingsworth) I have nothing to add, thank you.
2. Can I start off by asking you a little bit
about other research, and if you are aware of any other research
done by anybody else or by yourselves, into other countries? We
are looking at this kind of worldwide benchmarking exercise, comparing
what is being done in the United Kingdom at the moment with, say,
Calvary which you have looked at extensively. Should we be looking
also at New Zealand or any of the European countries, or are there
any other parts of the world which we ought to look at here?
(Ms Hollingsworth) There are Environmental Commissioners
in New Zealand and Australia. I have not done any work on that.
3. Both New Zealand and Australia?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.
4. Are there any others that you know of?
(Ms Hollingsworth) There is also an Environmental
Commissioner in Ontario, specifically for the province, because
obviously there is a Federal Commissioner, but quite different
from an environmental officer. I think the role of the New Zealand
Commissioner includes an audit role, but he has an ombudsman's
role as well.
5. What do you meana relationship with
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes, investigating complaints.
6. Complaints directly made by the public?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes. He has a much wider role and
can question policy and so on, which the Canadian auditor cannot
do. The Environmental Commissioner for Ontario is much more concerned
with assisting the public. There is an Environmental Bill of Rights
in Ontario which provides the tools for the public to hold Government
to account through increased participation rights. The Commissioner
facilitates that rather than investigating herself.
7. So again, rather like New Zealand, she has
a much stronger relationship with the public?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes. There is also a requirement
for the ministries in Ontario to post acts, regulations and instruments
which are environmentally significant onto a registry which the
public is able to have access to through the Internet. The public
can go ahead, look at that and comment on it, and there is a legal
requirement for ministries to take account of those comments.
The Commissioner oversees that process but does not conduct audits
as such, which the Commissioner for the Environment for Canada
as a whole does do.
8. So the Ontario person does not conduct audits
(Ms Hollingsworth) No, it is more an overseeing role
of the tools which are open to the public.
9. Is Australia different?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know anything about Australia.
10. You do not know either, Ms Ross-Robertson?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) No. Anything I do know is more
on the greening government side. Certainly the state of Pennsylvania
has a commitment to greening government and has a whole greening
government programme going. That is all I know. There is also
the Council on Environmental Qualitythat is a federal agency
in the United Stateswhich advises the President. That has
been increasingly active, I think, in recent years, but it was
set up years ago.
11. So there has been nothing novel there recently,
(Ms Ross-Robertson) No. There was something about
energy efficiency in the White House or whatever recently, but
that is all.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
We also want to come on to the whole question of audit and exactly
what it means.
12. We have had problems with this term ever
since we were actually set up by John Prescott as a terrieror
whatever you call itto bite the heels of Government. We
are a very new committee, a baby committee, if you like. Taking
"environmental audit", what do you understand by the
term? What do you understand by the term "environmental audit",
and how would you see the type of scrutiny that we are involved
in as being in any way different from the departmental Select
Committees? We sometimes have problems in defining it for ourselves,
I think it is fair to say.
(Ms Hollingsworth) As I understand it, "environmental
audit" can mean a number of things. I think that in the sense
in which it is used in the private sector it is concerned solely
with environmental management systems which, as I understand it,
are a management tool looking at the internal mechanisms within
an organisation. I think the role that this Committee seems to
have taken is a much more high-level scrutiny role, which Andrea
has looked at in more detail. "Environmental audit"
can also mean looking specifically at things. For example, in
the Canadian case the environment is a 4th E in the value for
money assessment, so as well as economy, efficiency and effectiveness
the audit will also look at the impact of spending on the environment,
so it can mean specifically that as well. Given that the Government
set up this Committee and mirrored it on the Public Accounts Committee,
I think the Public Accounts Committee is effective because it
has got the National Audit Office which feeds in specific audits
and information to it, whereas you are relying on witnesses and
information from government departments or the Sustainable Development
Unit, without the independent information which an independent
auditor would provide.
13. So would you say that we are a sort of hybrid
between the Public Accounts Committee on the one hand, having
that type of authority but not having the external mechanisms
to have it? We have been told that we are somehow different from
the departmental Select Committees and really fall between two
stools, having got the worst of both worlds.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) If I can interrupt here, in my
reading of what you are supposed to be doing, looking at the remit,
"audit" is one word, it is one component. You are also
to consider the extent to which policies and programmes of Government
impact. So far that is what you have been doing and doing very
well. This monitoring role is really what the whole integration
process is about, it is a much more high level role than nitty-gritty
auditing in the narrow sense of the word. A parallel would be
an auditor for equal opportunities or an auditor for open government,
for example. To me you have a very important role because in my
mind sustainable development encompasses things like equal opportunities
and open government. So that is another way of looking at it.
14. That is interesting. So really, rather than
usas we continually do when people ask us what we are and
who we aresaying, "We are a bit like the Public Accounts
Committee", perhaps we should drop that out of our language
and, perhaps, in another definition mention equal opportunities,
which I think is very interesting. Can I go on to what I think
Kathryn mentioned, which was the greening government. Do you think
greening of government actually fits in with the whole idea of
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I think it does. A greening government,
if you like, leading by example, is essential if we want sustainable
development to work. The Government expenditure is after all,
a large component of gross domestic product. In order for "greening
government" to work there has to be some sort of monitoring
device. In the past monitoring has been left to reporting in a
very loose way quite often, and reporting is one of the things
that I think should be tightened up and would improve your scrutiny
role, if you do not want to use the word "audit", for
example. So I think monitoring is quite an important component
of greening government and monitoring is essential.
(Ms Hollingsworth) Can I add that I think you also
need independent monitoring of those targets, and that is why
I keep pushing for an environmental auditor, but I think that
is where that will come in as opposed to having a Commission or
a body which is perhaps members appointed by government or which
does not have the report or the resources, such as the NAO provides.
So having targets is very important, but also the independent
monitoring of those targets is essential.
15. I think that is interesting. We are already
using two different terms. We are using terms such as "monitor"
and "scrutiny", perhaps we ought to look at a redefinition
of actually what this Committee is from that point of view. If
we stick with the original term of "audit", how good
or bad is "audit" in terms of encouraging improvement
by government in various policy departments in terms of actually
keeping a hand on the pulse of what is going on? What are the
limitations? We all talk about the great things that we are supposed
to be able to achieve, but what can we not do, given that role?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think that one of the problems
with "audit", which has been documented in accountancy
literature, is the fact that by having an external auditor the
environment that you then create is moulded so that it can deal
with these external auditors. So they make the environment auditable
rather than being concerned with sustainable development and rather
than being concerned with forward thinking programmes and so on.
It can be more of a checklist of what they are and are not doing.
That is one problem.
16. So, rather barren, this on the one hand
and that on the other, but no creativeness as to where we go next?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes. It is very much of a checklist.
We recycle our paper and, yes, we turn off our lights, but we
do not think about how we are going to integrate environment considerations
into our policies and what have you.
17. A bit sterile really then?
(Ms Hollingsworth) It can be, yes.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Audit is a very important part
of your remit as well. We cannot just ignore it. What Kathryn
was saying about some of these things, counting how many times
you turn off the light and whether you recycle paper and whether
you are energy efficient, is very important in instilling cultural
change. Ticking boxes is the beginning, as it were. The beauty
of this Committee and the reading of your remit is that you can
actually go beyond that.
18. Do you think we are doing?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I think you are. I think you are
going beyond it now, but you are not doing the nitty-gritty auditor
function, and so the hole is that. My concern is by concentrating
on the hole at the moment, you do not give up what you are already
doing, which is reviewing the Budget, reviewing things like the
Comprehensive Spending Review, all of which is very important
work in my mind.
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think that also the audit does
go a lot wider, so it does include that, and then an environmental
auditor can provide evidence and information on those high level
strategic issues as well. I think it is very important that any
kind of external audit works very closely with the internal mechanisms
as well. I think that is why the PAC works effectively, and it
has the same aims that the Treasury has, so they are both pulling
in the same directions, so that you have the managerial accountability
being reflected in the democratic accountability. It is going
to be very difficult because internally this Government is not
really concerned with sustainable development, but if it were,
you would need some kind of strong mechanisms within Government
and within managerial structure that are pulling for the same
things that you as a Committee are.
Mrs Brinton: Thank you very much. The
PAC, the clearest link to it, as you say, is pulling in the same
direction. In the Treasury our clearest parallel is DETR and I
do not think it actually works as quite a neat fit, but thank
you very much indeed.
19. We certainly need to keep plugging away
at the strategic applications as well as the strict audit applications,
is that what you are saying?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) That is very much what I am saying,
yes. As the Committee matures and as greening government matures,
this information should eventually become available, we hope.
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not think that we should be
too concerned either that there is a strict definition of what
"audit" means. I think we are more concerned with the
structures and what is happening rather than what is audit and
what is monitoring. I think we use "audit" in a very
general way to mean lots of different mechanisms.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
I want to come onto the Canadians now.